The place where it began is now the southwest corner of the Winchester Square Shopping Plaza in Springfield, Mass. The fall air of a late afternoon is nippy, the way it might have been in 1891 when Dr. James A. Naismith started his game, but the gaudy lights of Dunkin' Donuts and Stop and Shop do not pick up his peach basket. There are, in fact, no peach baskets around or many people who would note their absence. Nor are the baskets that mean something half a mile down the road at Springfield College, for whose winter wellbeing Dr. Naismith invented basketball. Those—the important baskets—are at American International College, three blocks from Springfield College, and they became important when a band of lithe athletes assembled by Coach Bill Callahan began stuffing them with balls so often and so expertly that even people at rival Springfield were beginning to say that AIC might just be playing some of the finest small college basketball in the country.
That is quite an admission for the former School of Christian Workers, for whom Dr. Naismith molded the first basketball team. Springfield still rates among the world's finest institutions of physical culture, and it does things like sending its basketball squad on a round-the-world goodwill tour, gathering the old grads at the Olympics in Mexico City for an old-fashioned YMCA-style luncheon and then placing half of its athletic staff on one Olympic committee or another for 1972. American International, by contrast, is a small liberal-arts college that was founded in 1885 to educate immigrants, a distinction that everybody might have forgotten by now were it not for the presence on the basketball team of a sandy-haired Greek center named George Kastrinakis. People think he looks Polish.
So what have the AIC Yellow Jackets been doing to the Chiefs of Springfield lately? The answer is beating them in six of the last seven years. AIC, which until 1965 was usually 3-21 (its record against Springfield was 6-29), has been 79-23 the last four years. Last season the Yellow Jackets won 21 of 25 and finished third in the NCAA College Division tournament, Bill Callahan was named small college coach-of-the-year and Greg Hill was first-team small-college All-America. This season the team should be every bit as good. Three starters including Hill are back, there are two excellent sophomores and the team is deep. Although there is plenty of competition—Southwest Missouri State, Ashland of Ohio, Alcorn A&M, Puget Sound, Gannon, Bellarmine, Tennessee State, Eastern New Mexico and, as usual, Evansville appear to be the best of the other small colleges—AIC could land on the top of them all come March.
So recent is American's rise to prominence that even Bobby Rutherford, a quick, flashy guard and one of the team's stars who grew up across the street from AIC, never heard of the school's basketball prowess before he went there. "We had to use any gym we could get, a junior high, maybe the Armory," recalls Callahan. "Everything went through the district school board and we had to play our games at the Springfield College Fieldhouse." Callahan fixed that situation late in 1965 when he talked AIC into building Butova Gymnasium and granting full athletic scholarships. Next he landed Henry Payne, Springfield's most widely sought athlete, and hired Hilton White, a highly successful black coach in New York City's recreational leagues, as his top assistant.
Interest began to build. Hill, one of White's former pupils, transferred from Owen Junior College in Memphis, a school with no gym and only three basketballs, and discovered AIC was paradise by comparison. Hill could shoot—63% for a 20.6 average last year—and the 1,800 students began calling him "Captain Nice" and following the team everywhere.
For the NCAA finals last March many of the students hitchhiked to Evansville, Ind. through a heavy snowstorm and with very little money in their pockets. AIC lost its semifinal game to Kentucky Wesleyan, the tournament winner, 83-82 in overtime when Rutherford missed a free throw after the game had ended. The loss was not entirely a heartbreaker. "At least," says Rutherford when reminded of that ghastly letdown, "people know now who we are."
This fall Mike Tranghese, publicity assistant, was hurriedly checking on the first season-ticket sale while Callahan worked to polish his two sophomores, 6'6" Kastrinakis and 6'4" Mike White. They will have to offset the unexpected loss of 6'11" Al Carter and defensive whiz Curtis Mitchell, two starters who elected to sit out the season because of illness and family problems. White's credentials are already impressive, however. The New Yorker chose AIC over offers from such major basketball schools as Davidson, Colorado, Jacksonville and Loyola of Chicago, primarily because of the presence of Hilton White. As a freshman he scored 71 points in one game—against, alas, Springfield.
Along with Hill and Rutherford (whom Callahan has praised as "the quickest player I've ever had and one of the quickest I have ever seen at any level") returns Alan Bush, a 5'7" fireplug who occasionally can dunk the ball. The responsibility for leading the team back to Evansville and possibly the championship rests chiefly with these three and the two sophomores, Kastrinakis and White.
Callahan, who punctuates practices with a lot of "atsababies" and "waytagos," is a firm believer in run-and-gun basketball ("the kids will do that better than anything if you let them") and mixed, pressuring defenses. He also serves as assistant athletic director and tennis coach and probably is the best set shooter in the city of Springfield. Recently he found himself being boosted quite seriously for mayor but he quickly asked out. "I'm not a real 100% politician like most Irish," he says.
Maybe not, but he is the driving force behind an athletic program that has brought in Art Ditmar, who won 72 games in the major leagues, to coach baseball, and Glenn Dumont, considered by some the best back in New England football. And American's hockey team is defending ECAC college-division champion.
Like AIC, Springfield, a city of 180,000, is enjoying prosperity these days. So many new building projects are springing up—a $13.9 million civic center, a downtown renovation with two shopping malls called Bay State West, a luxury hotel and a 24-story office building—that the city hardly noticed more than a year ago when Robert McNamara decided to close The Armory, birthplace of the Springfield rifle. Springfield even sprang for a handsome contribution to the Basketball Hall of Fame, which, after years of operating out of closets, now is housed in a modern $750,000 building and draws 32,000 sightseers a year. Despite the Naismith tradition, however, no team from Springfield has ever won a national championship. They are hoping that this might be the year.
The city and AIC may find out earlier than the NCAA finals—on Jan. 3, to be exact. That is the night the Yellow Jackets are scheduled to meet Evansville, and beating the Aces, who have won four college-division titles in the last 10 years, is never easy, particularly on their home court. Beating them this season will be a lot harder than last, when Evansville was 12-14, mostly because of the presence of two sophomores who have Indianians excited again. They are 6'3" Don Buse, who is already drawing comparisons with Jerry Sloan, Evansville's alltime everything, and 6'8" Steve (The Whale) Welmer.
Among the other powers of small-college basketball, about the only one AIC probably will not have to worry itself over is Kentucky Wesleyan, where four starters are gone, including All-America George Tinsley, who left school for the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. But AIC notably can expect considerable competition from a team in another Springfield—Southwest Missouri State. If State's rooters are any measure, then the Massachusetts Springfielders had better watch out. The Chamber of Commerce has said that: "Experience has shown it is not wise to schedule any kind of event on the same night that Southwest State is playing a basketball game." As many as three radio stations broadcast the school's games and fans have been known to stand in line all night to purchase one of 3,500 available seats. Southwest State, 75-71 loser in the college-division finals last year, returns 6'7" Pivot Curtis Perry, a 20-point, 15-rebound man, among others and should keep the home folks smiling.
There is smiling going on, too, in Lorman, Miss., where 500 residents still pride themselves over the Conn Brothers General Store—the original country store, so they claim. The prospects for Alcorn A&M, which lost some strength from a 26-1 squad but returns both guards and strong, 6'5" Floyd Mason, who can jump so well that it takes a 6'9" foe to stop him, seem excellent. If Alcorn is not the class of the South, then Bellarmine, with five of its top six players from a good 16-12 team returning, or Tennessee State may be. State, which has sent Dick Barnett, John Barnhill and Ben Warley to the pros, is saying that it has yet another like them in Guard Ted McClain.
Ashland of Ohio, basketball's equivalent to a slow pulse beat, shoots seldom, scores less and refuses to work the ball in. But the Eagles are ball hawks, to mix a metaphor or, better yet, to mix up opposing teams. Four of the five frustrators who limited foes to 33.9 points a game last Season are back, including long-armed Guard Kevin Wilson. He is only 6'5" but he gives the impression of having the longest wing spread of all in the Ashland aerie. The team is famed for tricky ball handling before its games begin. Those who have had to play against the Ohioans after the center tap-off usually wish the warmup show had never stopped. Getting the ball away from Ashland has been—and this season will continue to be—as easy as stealing an egg from an Eagle's nest.
Though basketball still plays second fiddle to football at Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., rookie Coach Don Zech revitalized things with a 20-2 season (24-3 if you count schools like Hawaii, which the NCAA does not) and, with four starters back, the Loggers should dominate the Pacific Coast. Yet the best in the West may be the NAIA defending champion, Eastern New Mexico. A running team that travels by Greyhound bus and has, appropriately, two greyhounds for mascots, it returns four-fifths of the brigade that sank 63% of its shots in Kansas City last March. Greg Hyder, a 6'6" NAIA All-America forward the last three years, teams with brother Jerry to form a solid nucleus. If John Arnold, better known for his antelope-hunting exploits in the Portales, N. Mex. hills, comes through at center, the team should repeat.
Primary challenge to American International's Eastern supremacy will come from Gannon College in Erie, Pa., a former NAIA school that just joined the NCAA. Glenn Summors last season scored 30 points against Niagara and 24 against Dayton, both major powers. He leads a lineup that includes the first six from a 24-6 team.
Should AIC manage to end up with a title and a better record than any of those schools, in Springfield they just may find a small niche for a little plaque in that building they helped erect. Dr. Naismith of the rivals would have approved of that.